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AskTP – Deep Breaths

November 14, 2013

For the record, I still have high hopes that a crime reporter who has worked as a chef can be an effective critic who improves the overall Capital Region dining scene. After all, I’ve long held that what some of these places charge for the food they serve is a crime.

But I’m not going to talk about that today. It’s been so long since I’ve written an Ask the Profussor that some of you have feared that the feature has been cancelled.

Let me assure you, it has not. My commitment is to make sure that every question asked in the comments section of the blog (with appropriate punctuation), eventually receives an answer. Sometimes the answers come fast and furious. Other times the questions languish.

For those unfamiliar with this semi-regular feature, the links assigned to each question have nothing to do with the question at hand. Instead, they will direct you to the same mystery link of the day, and today’s is pretty sweet.

Now, without further ado, onto the questions.

Deanna from Silly Goose Farm thought I might follow up on American cheese:
I’d check out Land O Lakes American cheese again. I think it’s no longer a WIC approved item because of the milk/oil ratio. Or something like that. I didn’t really look into it because I don’t buy it. But maybe it’s something you could do some snooping on?

I don’t think I’m going to go snooping around cross-comparisons of supermarket American cheeses. It isn’t something I’m ever going to bring into my house on purpose, but I’ve learned to accept its presence on certain sandwiches. This wasn’t always the case. I refused to get a Shackburger largely based on its inclusion of American cheese. Now I owe the Shake Shake another visit where I get the burger that made them famous.

LB gave a reason as to why she couldn’t make the Coffee Collective’s first public tasting:
My ostensible excuse is that I planned to go to a craft show in Lake George. That’s not a good enough excuse, is it?

How did you guess? Hopefully the Coffee Collective will continue to keep me posted about their future events. For penance, you can bring a friend to the next coffee tasting (to make up for your unexcused absence at the first one). Deal?

Pam C. presumably didn’t get the memo about my current deep, dark secret:
I’m not sure where the hamlet of Princeton is. Did you mean Princetown?

Believe it or not, I’m continuing to write about food in upstate New York from Princeton, New Jersey. It may technically be a township or a borough instead of a hamlet. I don’t know. Whatever it is, most of it is downright charming.

Susan L. opened up a big can of worms:
Hasn’t anyone introduced you to UNREAL candy? They make candy almost identical to snickers, M&Ms (both plain and peanut), and Reese PB cups — all flavored with vanilla extract. Plus, no HFCS, chemicals, GMOs or artificials. Sold around here at Target and CVS if you’re lucky. I’m handing them out for Halloween.

Nope. You were my first. Thank you. And as it turned out they were what I handed out for Halloween too. Although the kids were less excited by their stylish black wrappers and more into the few packs of Nerds and shiny Twix bars.

Ed is also left scratching his head by some of the restaurant reviews in the Times Union:
Dave and Buster’s is just that a “BUST”. We went there to just look around, sensory overload and WHO would want to eat there???? Just a side note but I don’t seem to get the connection between the review and the number of stars awarded. If you sort out the pluses and minuses in the review, for the most part things don’t add up to the number of stars or is it just me?

There is a dining room that is removed from the chaos of the game room. But families with kids might want to eat in the din of the arcade. That way, their noisy children won’t be bothering other tables nearby. Nor will the parents have to listen to the little ones prattle on about Rainbow Loom bracelet patterns or which kids are being invited to the next birthday party.

As far as the star total of the TU restaurant reviews go, I would agree that in the past they have included a few head scratchers. But I’m much more concerned with the inconsistency with which they hand out stars at all, than the internal logic of the occasional review that fails to connect the dots between an evaluation and its conclusion.

Beck finds herself on the horns of a dilemma, but it’s one faced by Mrs. Fussy too:
So. If you hated raw onions, would you ask to hold the onions on Mexican-style taco, or just skip the taco altogether?

Mrs. Fussy skips the taco altogether and goes straight for the burrito. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. But do make sure that they don’t put onions on the burrito either.

For all my taco love, tacos aren’t the be all and end all of taquerias. Burritos are most excellent. They are also just really freaking huge. So your choices are to gorge on something delicious, find someone with whom to split it, or decide that you just won’t finish the whole thing. The only problem with that last part is that you won’t get to enjoy the “heart” of the burrito. And that is the knob at the base that collects all the juices that have pooled in the tin foil wrapper that is the only thing holding it together. My God, that’s a great bite.

Mr. Dave left his heart in Guilderland even though he abandoned our fair township:
Don’t you pay taxes in Guilderland? Are you ashamed of living in the Land of Guilders?

Sure. But I imagine there are Albany County taxes too, right? I have no idea. Mrs. Fussy does the books. I do the cooking.

Guilderland is a fine place to live. But I still use Albany as a shorthand for the region.

Burnt My Fingers noticed a dramatic change in my publishing cycle:
Two posts in one day. Is that a first?

It’s not actually. I’ve done it at least once before. And some day, should I ever decided I’d like to boost my traffic numbers, I may make multiple daily posts a regular part of the FLB. But we’ll have to see what the future holds.

Laura Northrup is sounding like some kind of heretic:
Would they put lettuce on your tacos if you asked? I’ve been told that my love of toasted onion bagels with veggie cream cheese or hummus is some kind of bagel blasphemy, but I don’t care one bit.

They may look at you funny, but I’m sure they would do it. I occasionally order things that aren’t on the menu when I’m there with the kids, and they have always been very accommodating.

Now, as far as your bagels are concerned. Yes, that’s totally blasphemous. It would be worse if you were doing it with a truly great bagel. But I somehow doubt that’s the case. So, carry on. Just make sure to keep your bagel shenanigans out of Long Island, where you might actually do some real harm.

charr00 has made me wonder if I’m doing more harm than good:
I’m scared of chicken nuggets and hotdogs. But all the other bits, I’m game (blood sausage, sweetbreads, head cheese, liver, etc.). I think I’m more comfortable if I or someone I know prepares it. Maybe it’s the big vats?? My friends say it’s mental. You’ve given me reason to try again!

I’ve made a huge mistake. Sure, there is a case to be made in favor of the nugget, but that doesn’t mean you should be eating them. Instead of the big vats, perhaps you are scared of the additives like anti-foaming agents and who knows what else. Stick to real food as much as you can. Just know that nuggets aren’t the problem, and they shouldn’t be vilified out of context. The problem, of course, is the size and scope of our industrial food system. Nuggets are just a symptom.

WrigsMac asks two really big and rather serious questions so we’ll do then one at a time:
1) We seem to live in a time when everyone expects cheap meat with every meal. When did that change? Meat used to be a smaller part of our diet, an occasional treat. And OUR demand for cheap meat is the reason these conditions exist.

If I were going to guess it would be post WWII. Industrialization and prosperity were likely the drivers of this. It’s the world into which the Baby Boomers were born. Around that time, taste was also in decline with frozen meals, the pursuit of convenience foods, and a general trend of national homogeneity.

2) People would rather shop in a giant, shiny grocery store than ever think about the food before it’s put on the shelf. How do you inspire people to want to connect to their food?

I don’t think you can shame people into it, because these tactics raise defense mechanisms and become quickly ineffective. The answer though is going to be different for everyone. But I’ve always liked the power of taste. When agriculture is produced with ridiculous standards of quality, the results can be astounding. Frog Hollow’s amazing stone fruits come to mind. The problem is that not all ethically produced food tastes or looks better than its conventionally raised cousins. On top of that, these foods tend to be more expensive.

The power of Chez Panisse was that Alice and her chefs were able to get the most gorgeous produce from regional farmers. And nothing else could come close. But not all local foods are created equal. However, if you were trying to open someone’s eyes to the better flavors of local foods, I would probably offer them a blind tomato taste-off in early September. The only question is do you feed them the conventional tomato first or second?

Rabbi Don Cashman might like my rabbinic style of answering a question with a question:
And how can you hang out your shingle as a food maven without a gas grill?

How can I call myself a food maven if I’m not cooking over wood? This is the issue that I’ve struggled with over the years. And I’ve got a little kettle. Maybe the gas grill was a bad idea. Just imagine how good the baba will taste when charred over hardwood.

Thanks for talking me out of it, rabbi.

Burnt My Fingers apparently wanted a more formal lesson in eggplant spread:
Did you intend to attach the good professor’s powerpoint?

Nope. I pretty much covered all of the slides. If you really want to see it, send me a private email and I’ll share it person to person. But I’m not going to share it with the world. Just be warned, it’s a crazy big file. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

MB is chomping at the bit to learn how I will be approaching hummus:
I don’t remember where I read this, but apparently rubbing off the chickpea skins results in creamier hummus. Will you be removing the skins?

I’ve heard the same thing. Since I am on this sabbatical and I do have a little more time on my hands, I have to admit that I’ve considered it. First I need to have a knowledge sharing session with my Israeli neighbors. Maybe I can make my first batch during Chanukah. After all, it is the holiday of the miracle of the oil.

abby is already making plans for me sixteen months in the future:
Guess we know what you will be bringing to Food Festival in Spring of 2014?

Oh man. Maybe. Maybe instead of being inside doing tastings, I can be outside with a grill doing a cooking demo. That could be fun. I also bet by the end of the day I would have gotten even faster at banging out my baba.

Buck commiserated on deceptive labels after I found artificial sweetener in my pretzels:
Did you know that the label can read ’0g Sugar’ if there is less than .5g per serving size?

I didn’t explicitly, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m hardly surprised.

WrigsMac had a suggestion for a documentary I might enjoy:
Did you ever seen Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox? It’s on Netflix Instant.

I have not. Mrs. Fussy is the one who is the big fan of his soap. And I’m working my way through a huge backlog of TV shows. The good news is that I burned through the first two seasons of Breaking Bad in one week. Good stuff.

DEN may be in luck, because just yesterday I heard from Bryan for the first time:
On lettucegate, I have not had a taco at La Mexicana with lettuce, but the only complete conclusion would be an inspection of the picture that the TU reviewer took of the taco, no?

We’ll see if he’s willing to share. But we have also seen recently how a picture can be misleading. Burnt My Fingers was sure the greenery in Paul G’s snapshot was lettuce when it was indeed cilantro. Still, even if Bryan’s picture clearly shows lettuce, he should have been critical of that vegetable’s presence on an otherwise traditional street taco.

Mr. Dave is still unclear on the fact that La Mexicana doesn’t put lettuce on their tacos:
But has anyone maybe gone into the place said something like — “hey, have you all ever put lettuce on a taco if someone didn’t ask for it?” That might clear it up.

That’s like going to Stewart’s and asking them if they ever put chocolate syrup in someone’s strawberry milkshake, even though that person didn’t ask for it.

delsoblogger might have been targeting her questions to KB@Home-Baked Happiness:
1) I agree that places within 10-15 miles may best be reviewed by sampling a couple of items over two visits, thus bringing the total check for each meal into a more realistic realm. Maybe that is something that the publisher of the TU might consider?

That would be an improvement. And I just found out yesterday that Rex Smith used to date a restaurant reviewer. Back then he would accompany her as she visited each restaurant three times before writing a review.

2) Saying that Bryan doesn’t know food, though, is stooping pretty low. Can he possibly know everything about every cuisine? Probably not. Has he done time in a professional kitchen? Yes, indeed.

I don’t know Bryan. I don’t know what he knows and I don’t know the gaps of his knowledge. But I do know that when I have gaps in my own knowledge, I make sure to do some research to fill in my blind spots. And this is the due diligence I bring to writing online. I would expect newspaper journalists to do at least as much, if not more.

3) Plus – he doesn’t smoke between courses. I’ve waited on (or witnessed the dining of) every single TU food writer in the past 25 years and they each have had their strengths and weaknesses. You know why? Because they’re all human. Aren’t we all?

Wow. I always forget the treasure trove of experience you bring to the table. Thanks for sharing this nugget from the past. Hopefully Bryan doesn’t secretly douse his food with hot sauce either. But it’s good to remember where we’ve come from as a region. And in truth, I continue to see an emerging food scene and the overall betterment of restaurant food in general. Anyhow, like I said in the piece, I’m not expecting super-human perfection. But just like restaurants can improve when they are given frank criticism, I’m hoping journalists can too.

addiesdad has a complicated question on barrel aging cocktails:
I want to barrel age Manhattan’s for a holiday party in a charred oak barrel. What bourbon do you recommend? Something less aged that will pick up the char like Ironweed? Or something more mature yet inexpensive lke Evan Williams? Also, vermouth suggestions?

So I’ve never made barrel aged cocktails before, but I know enough about the process to be dangerous. There are some important details from your description that are lacking. I don’t know the size of your barrel, how much time you have between now and the party, if the barrel is new (and if new the level of char) or used (and if used, what it previously contained), whether or not price is a factor, and if it’s important for your drink to be textbook Manhattan (or if liberties could be taken).

For example, if you had a small used Tuthilltown bourbon barrel (and not that much time) I might suggest going non traditional and filling it with Cornelius Applejack and American Fruits sour cherry cordial instead of vermouth.

But if you had a new charred barrel and plenty of time, then you might have an argument for using an unaged spirit. However, even then you are working with something bottle proof and not still proof. That’s less than ideal.

It’s an interesting question and challenge. Please feel free to email me and we can discuss it further.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2013 12:26 pm

    Hey, don’t knock shaming. It’s probably one of the motivators of my food choices. But I don’t want to call it shaming, I’ll call it empathy. I think I might pick up Food, Inc. for my dad’s xmas stocking. I’d try to inspire him with local foods but he lives in southern AZ now; lemons, pecans and prickly pear are pretty much his only options.

  2. Laura Northrup permalink
    November 14, 2013 2:03 pm

    My bagel heresies started at Bagel Grove in Utica, and I’ve kept it up at Bruegger’s, Uncommon Grounds, and when I buy them at Price Chopper.

  3. November 14, 2013 2:26 pm

    Could you fix your Table Hopping link over there in the Regional Food Blogs list? It’s busted.

  4. Susan L permalink
    December 4, 2013 5:05 pm

    SO glad I could introduce you to Unreal candy.

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